The Heaviest Oppression

On Saturday, August 17, 1751, in The Rambler, Samuel Johnson wrote: “Politicians remark that no oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and the exorbitance of legal authority.” We might wonder: “Why is this?” Surely crooks and tyrants are more dangerous than legal authority?

No: “the robber may be seized and the invader repelled whenever they are found; they who pretend no right but that of force, may by force be punished or suppressed,” Johnson continued. “But when plunder bears the name of impost, and murder perpetrated by judicial sentence, fortitude is intimidated and wisdom confounded; resistance shrinks from alliance with rebellion; the villain remains secure in the robes of the magistrate.”

This insightful passage of Johnson antedates the American Revolution by a quarter of a century. It is remarkably pertinent when “legal” abortion and tax-powers have few constitutional limits. No oppression is more dismaying and more difficult to confront than civil power gone wrong. We can deal with robbers and invaders. But unjust judges, legislators, and executives are another thing. They represent the law on which we rely to carry out our lives in justice and good sense.

We hate to embrace rebellion. Are we wiser than the rulers? Yes, impeachment, recall, grand juries, elections, civil and criminal suits were designed to deal with such aberrations. Looking about the world, including at ourselves, we often conclude that civil corruption in constitutional bodies may well be the world’s principal political issue. Ultimately, the problem is virtue, not political structure.

Decades ago, while I was teaching at the University of San Francisco, a university directive came out stipulating that all campus clubs must be open to everyone. I do not remember the motivation for such a requirement. The decree was controverted by the school’s Filipino Club. With some logic, it thought that opening their club to non-Filipinos would make it a “Non-Filipino Club.” Why a non-Filipino would want to join such a club is beyond me except perhaps to disrupt it. The odd logic of such a requirement remained in my memory.

This last year, the Catholic Club at Vanderbilt University, a recognized university organization under the name “Vanderbilt Catholic,” decided to leave campus and give up its name. The university imposed a rule that all university clubs had to have a non-discriminatory policy. Anyone could be a member of any club and run for offices in that club. It does not take a genius, even in academia, to imagine what such a policy means. No club can be itself. We are in the age of what must be called “non-discriminatory discrimination.”

       Dr. Johnson by his friend Joshua Reynolds

This move at Vanderbilt, a private university, might seem a private affair except that the university claims to be following a court decision about groups at a University of California Law School. So behind it all are the robes of the magistrates as well as those of the compliant academics.

We have become used to states that have open elections so that one need not be a member of the party to vote in its primary elections. We are beginning to see indications that one does not even need to be an American to vote in our elections. With the doctrine of non-discrimination, nothing holds, not even the center. Logically, on this basis, we can all be members of Phi Beta Kappa. Excellence is by definition discriminatory. So is just about everything else.

A common good, however, means not that everything becomes everything else, but that the parts of the society have the authority and duty to remain what they are. When everything is absorbed into a non-discriminatory mode, nothing is really left. Most of this thinking, as in the case at Vanderbilt, originates in homosexual problems. A Protestant group expelled a gay. The response of the university was that everything must be open to everyone. I suppose the homosexual clubs must be open to non-homosexuals. One could conceive, on this hypothesis, of a homosexual club taken over by right-to-lifers or vice versa.  

Were not the whole thing absurd, we could let it go. A university president who imposes a rule whereby any club can be controlled by anyone must have a philosophy of complete relativism. Nothing much matters.

But distinctions do matter. We were once allowed to be what we held. Catholics were Catholics. Jews were Jews. It was all right. We now have an overarching “law” that tells us that we cannot be what we are. The university, once a place that respected distinctions and diversity of ways of life, is now an engine that allows nothing but its own definition of diversity. And diversity means that nothing can be diverse.

Johnson would be amused at what the colonials have wrought, though the same thing happens in his Britain.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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